A Letter from China
February 20, 2001
Twelfth in a Series by Ernest Pinson
Let me say from the outset that in no way do I intend to put China, a still developing nation as even they themselves are quick to admit, up against the living standards of the Western industrial powers. China has a long way to go in their infrastructure of electricity, water, air pollution, and roads as well as in housing----but they are serious about progress.
From my vantage point as a tourist on a recent trip in southeast Asia, China has much more development than Thailand, and is certainly on a par with Malaysia (if not having passed it). But there is nothing in China to compare with the extra-modern city of Singapore (only a very few cities can compare with it, even in Japan, Germany, or USA.) Singapore arguably is the most beautiful city I have seen as modern cities go, excepting perhaps in Switzerland----but more about that topic in the next letter.
In China there are four ways to get a place to live: 1. Live in a government or company housing; 2. Rent an apartment; 3. Buy the land and or a house; 4. Put up a lean-to in an alley, vacant lot, or up against someone elseís building. There are three main types of living quarters: single house dwellings, cluster house dwellings, and apartments. Make no mistake, there are some beautiful country houses along the road, most recently built. But I shall be describing only apartments and cluster houses.
Almost all apartments are made of poured concrete, glass, steel and brick. I have never noticed a fire station nor heard a fire truck that I recall, though Iím sure they must exist. Most apartment buildings are 5-10 floors high and usually without elevators, central heating, carpeting (though some will have their own wood tile or panel floors put on top of the concrete) and in some cases there is no plumbing (the renter must supply his own). The windows are usually sliding glass in frames built into the concrete.
By Western standards the rooms are a bit small, say 12x12, a typical bedroom will have a bed, a dresser, lamp, and standing wood closet (no built in closets and usually no heat). Even though some have purchased small wall heaters and air-conditioner combination, you will likely get cold. They seldom use throw rugs, tablecloths, or strips of carpet even at door entrances or bedsides.
There's a strange phenomenon about Chinese people. I don't know if it's the blood flow or just being accustomed to oneís own climate, but they seem able to withstand extreme temperatures better than the Americans here do. Many times in the summer I boarded a bus and was rolling in perspiration. Yet when I sat down and looked around, not a single Chinese looked hot. Other times I am freezing in an apartment that has no heat and they appear unruffled. (They also seem able to fall asleep anywhere at the snap of a finger, but thatís another matter.) I still cringe when I remember that my students last year were eight to a room in dormitories on sub-freezing nights without any heat, or walking through snow to reach a separate building to take a hot shower because their dormitory had no hot water.
There are restaurants galore in China. Eating is both a social ritual and a form of entertainment. I'm convinced they spend more money on a percentage basis for eating than we do. Eateries of all types exist, including KFC, McDonalds, and Pizza Hut, yet, they lack short order restaurants of the Western type. I worked some Saturday mornings in the center of the city and tried in vain to find places to eat breakfast prior to 9:00 AM. Only McDonalds came through. What you will find are many vendors serving hot food on little carts with wheels in alleyways and along the sidewalks -- all kinds of food there. The problem with most of these is that they are open air in the middle of heavy human and vehicle traffic where food is easily contaminated.
Because of the high unemployment rate, there are twice as many vendors and taxi drivers as needed. Farmers and laid off workers are flocking to cities seeking work.
Chinaís inner city structure needs reorganization. Iíve not seen street cleaning vehicles or garbage trucks, or modern window cleaning equipment in Nanjing and other cities although they may have them in Shanghai or possibly Beijing. Again manual labor is preferred in order to provide jobs. Newscasts on TV show a crying need for bulldozers to push snow off highways in and around Inner Mongolia. In short, the need for jobs holds in check the mechanical improvements. There is a severe conflict (as in most countries) with the need to modernize with technology and machines and the need to provide employment.
Still, everywhere one sees new buildings, new roads, new industry, and the government is constantly proclaiming the need to upgrade Western China, or Beijing toilets, obtain more foreign capital, enter WTO, clean up pollution (they have a very complex water and air problem), get the Olympic games in Beijing in 2008, increase reforestation to hold back deserts and soil erosion, build new dams for inadequate hydroelectric systems, and change the education system. Yes, China has a long way to go as a developing nation, but she does seem to have her eyes open to the shortfalls, at least industrially, if not politically and socially.
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